Our Obsession with Having Strong-Man Leadership is Un-American

If you’ve watched any the Republican debates this election cycle, you’ve probably heard one of the candidates say something about how we need a big strong leader in the White House.

This idea, that America needs a strongman type leader, is very popular right now among conservatives.

They really do think that all our country’s problems will magically go away if we have an alpha male (or female) “decider” in the White House.

And while acting or bragging about your alpha male status might get you airtime on Fox So-Called News, it doesn’t actually mean you’ll be a good president.

At least not according to what the Founding Fathers would have considered a good president.

Today’s Republicans have apparently forgotten this, but the Founders were republicans with a lower case “r” who were inspired by examples of democracy they saw all around them.

For example, much of the U.S. Constitution is based on the Iroquois Confederacy -- the five (later six) tribes who occupied territories from New England to the edge of the Midwest. It was a democracy with elected representatives, an upper and lower house, and a supreme court (made up entirely of women, who held final say in five of the six tribes).

The Framers hoped they could create something as successful out of the Thirteen Colonies.

As Benjamin Franklin noted to his contemporaries at the Constitutional Convention: "It would be a very strange thing if Six Nations of Ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union and be able to execute it in such a manner, as that it has subsisted for Ages, and appears indissoluble, and yet a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies."

This kind of fascination with democracy -- in all its forms -- was unique in the early modern world.

Back in Europe, the sort of democracy the Framers were borrowing and inventing was considered unnatural. Philosophers like Thomas Hobbes argued that the world was better off with the rule of the few over the many, even if that meant that the many were impoverished. Without a strong and iron-fisted ruler, Hobbes wrote, there would be "no place for industry . . . no arts, no letters, no society."

Because Hobbes believed that ordinary people couldn't govern themselves, he believed that most people would be happy to trade personal freedom and economic opportunity for the ability to live in the relative safety and security of a strong-man-run state.

The Founders disagreed. They believed in the rights of ordinary people to self-determination, so they created a form of government where “We the People” rule.

leadership obviously had a role to play in this radical experiment in democracy, but the Founders said our representatives true power would come from the people they represented, not from bossing them around.

It’s not an accident that this is still more or less the case 228 years after the Founders got together to write the Constitution.

You see, Thomas Hobbes had it all wrong: Political democracy, not tyranny, is the natural state of humankind.

In fact, it’s the natural state of the entire animal kingdom.

Scientists used to think animal societies were ruled by alpha males. Recent studies, however, have found that while it's true that alphas have the advantage in courtship rituals, that's where their power ends. Their power, like the power of a president in democracy, is limited by the group.

For example, when deciding when to stop grazing and head toward a watering hole, red deer point their bodies in seemingly random directions, until it comes time to go drink. Then individuals begin to graze while facing one of several watering holes.

When a majority of deer are pointing toward one particular watering hole, they all move in that direction. More often than not, the alpha deer is actually one of the last to move toward the hole rather than one of the first.

Red deer aren’t the only species of animals to work things out democratically.

As biologist Tim Roper has shown, flocks of birds aren't following a leader but monitoring the motions of those around them for variations in the flight path; when more than 50 percent have moved in a particular direction--even if it's only a quarter-inch in one direction or another--the entire flock "suddenly" veers off that way.

It's the same with schools of fish and swarms of gnats, and that’s because everyone is better off when they get to participate in the group’s decision-making process. It reduces the risk of one crazy leader killing off the whole group as a result of one bad decision.

If only today’s Republicans understood that.

They literally don't have the wisdom of a gnat!

Their obsession with a having strong-man leader king -- or queen -- type figure in the White House is exactly what the Founders rebelled against.

It’s un-American, unnatural, and makes everyone less safe.

Let’s hope voters realize that and embrace real democracy before it’s too late.


Hephaestus's picture
Hephaestus 8 years 26 weeks ago

Thom! You are far too sensible... no one listens to sensible any more... what is quaintly known as "common sense" is now non existent

cccccttttt 8 years 26 weeks ago

If you are looking to the animal world as a model for successful human society , at least pick the long term evolutionary winners:

the social insects.

See no sign of democracy in their societies, societies that have thrived for millions of years.

But do see lessons we could learn.


ChristopehrCurrie's picture
ChristopehrCurrie 8 years 26 weeks ago

I believe Bill Moyers and Michael Winship described the source of the shortcomings and dangers posed by today's Republican politicians more accurately as follows:

"By such are we governed today: soulless puppets dangling from the rich man’s string, their wooden hands outstretched, palms upturned. As we speak they are writing in secret new rules to perpetuate the rule of the few."

Willie W's picture
Willie W 8 years 26 weeks ago

We have evolved into a "kick ass" society. Candidates are coached to talk tough because currently, that attitude seems to be popular. Makes you wonder who they really are, or what they will be told to do once elected.

Mark J. Saulys's picture
Mark J. Saulys 8 years 26 weeks ago

All the elements of Naziism are in place in our society even more so than in Germany 80 years ago.

wolfhowl 8 years 26 weeks ago

Thom, I am unsubscribing from your list because you have gone from being a thinking man to being a shill for the mainstream liberal agenda. I think that "Last Days of Ancient Sunlight" is the most important thing you ever did. About all I agree with you about these days is your support of Bernie, who will be our next president, and enviromental issues. One thing I disagree with both you and Bernie about is gun control. Like many ol' country boys of my generation I appreciate my constitutional right to be armed to protect my family and country, and will not give up that right under any circumstances!

2950-10K's picture
2950-10K 8 years 26 weeks ago

Extreme concentration of wealth leads to extreme concentration of power. It's pretty simple, money equates to power, always has.

Thus when a government allows individuals to amass billions in wealth, that government has put itself in a position highly vulnerable to a Fascist overthrow, like the one we have experienced. The key here is having enough money to control the message, which the Fascists have done an excellent job with....they control almost our entire media. Other than the entertainment that's used to distract the easily distracted, the political content is almost entirely extreme right wing propaganda.

So what I consider un-american is the lack of taxation and financial regulation which is needed to keep Fascists like Trumpet from amassing billions. Let guys like him simply focus on the purchase of their next trophy woman, instead of the purchase and overthrow of our democracy.

John_mulkins123's picture
John_mulkins123 8 years 26 weeks ago

Thanks, Thom.

Few civilizations have learned to govern with compassion and wisdom, but this is clearly our task now, and there is no time to waste. I pray this Christmas that we all come together to create a society which values life over property, well-being over wealth, and our inter-dependence over our neurotic isolation and exceptionalism.

The current paradigm we are living under has many layers of dysfunction, and we are fast approaching a tipping point. It is imperative that blogs like yours focus on tenable solutions which could facilitate a transition to a more just and sustainable world.

I invite you to broaden the discussion about forming a national referendum process for America. If we believe in our sovereignty and our duty to protect our collective future, progressive leaders, at a minimum, have a responsibility to explore real solutions. Upgrading our operating system may be the only way Americans will avoid a tipping point which will be our last.




Legend 8 years 26 weeks ago

I call it chest pounding. Remember Reagan "make my day" or Bush "We will smoke them out". Big talk leads to bad things.


mathboy's picture
mathboy 8 years 26 weeks ago

Anybody know where wolfhowl is getting his fears? I haven't heard Thom or Bernie propose confiscation of guns from anyone other than through due process of law in a criminal case, and I don't think they've actually mentioned that.

Legend 8 years 26 weeks ago

He watches Fox News.

w1ders's picture
w1ders 8 years 26 weeks ago

To put it simply republicans are obviously not able to govern without being told what, how, and when to do something. Problem is they are letting the wrong folks lead them around by the nose. They should be embarrased but aren't sharp enough to realize just how simple they really look to those around them.

seyorni's picture
seyorni 8 years 25 weeks ago

I thought the whole point of America was that we didn't have leaders, that we led ourselves through elected representatives.

Aliceinwonderland's picture
Aliceinwonderland 8 years 25 weeks ago

Reply to post #13: seyorni- That's the Big Lie they taught us in grade school.

Wolfhowl (post #6) sounds like a shill for the corporate fascist agenda. Good luck with that, Wolfhowl. We are everywhere.

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